The Historical-Cultural and Theological Context
Earlier in the course we learned how important historical-cultural and literary contexts are to proper interpretation. Since the Old Testament prophetic literature is unique, to attempt to interpret it out of context is to invite confusion and error. First of all, we must identify the historical-cultural context in which the prophets preached. To do this, let’s review Israel’s history and locate the prophets in their proper time within the biblical story. A continuous story runs from Genesis 12 to 2 Kings 25. In Genesis God calls Abraham and promises him descendants, a land, and blessings. This promise is repeated to Abraham’s son Isaac and to Isaac’s son Jacob, who, in turn, has twelve sons. One of these sons is Joseph, whom the other sons sell into slavery. He is taken to Egypt and the family later follows, settling in Egypt. Genesis thus ends with this special family in Egypt.
Sometime during the next four hundred years the Hebrews are forced into slavery by the Egyptians. God comes to them and raises up Moses to deliver them miraculously from Egypt (the book of Exodus). God then enters into covenant relationship with them, stating, “I will be your God; you will be my people. I will dwell in your midst.” God presents them with the various laws of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, which define the terms by which they can live in the Promised Land with God in their midst and be blessed by him in the land.
However, that first generation refuses to enter the land, and God allows them to die off in the desert. He then takes the next generation back to the perimeter of the Promised Land and recommits them to a covenant relationship. As before, the terms of the covenant define how they are to live in the land with God in their midst. This relationship is defined specifically by the laws in Deuteronomy. This book clearly shows the people that if they obey God and keep the law, they will be immensely blessed. However, the book also stresses that if they disobey the law and turn away from God, they will be punished; and if they do not repent, they will eventually even lose the Promised Land.
The rest of the story up to the end of 2 Kings deals with the issue of whether the Israelites are going to keep the terms of this agreement. In Joshua, the next book after Deuteronomy, the Israelites remain faithful to the Lord. But in Judges, they turn away from him and backslide into idolatry. Ruth introduces David, who dominates the story in 1 and 2 Sam uel. David is faithful to God, and he brings the nation back to covenant obedience. However, even David is unable to stay completely faithful, as his sin with Bathsheba demonstrates. David’s son Solomon is able to coast for a while on his father’s relationship with God, but soon he turns to idols, setting the pattern for future kings and people alike.
The books of 1 and 2 Kings tell the story of how the two nations of the Hebrews, Israel and Judah, continually fall away from the Lord, turning instead to the idols of their neighbors. Ultimately the Lord punishes them, and they lose the right to live in the Promised Land. The northern kingdom, Israel, falls into idolatry very early and is destroyed by the Assyrians (722 BC). Later, the southern kingdom, Judah, likewise turns away and is destroyed by the Babylonians (587 BC). The book of 2 Kings ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the southern kingdom’s inhabitants to Babylon.
The prophets preach primarily within the context of the later part of this story. As the nation turns away from the Lord, thus forgetting the covenant agreement they made with God in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the prophets emerge as God’s spokesmen to call the people back to covenant obedience. Thus, in regard to the historical context, most of the prophets preach in one of two contexts: just prior to the Assyrian invasion, which destroyed the northern kingdom, Israel; or just prior to the Babylonian invasion, which destroyed the southern kingdom, Judah.
These contexts are extremely important in order to understand the prophets. We must constantly keep them before us as we read and interpret the Old Testament prophetic literature. Theologically the prophets proclaim their message from the context of the Mosaic covenant, primarily as defined in Deuteronomy. They tell the people to repent, to turn from idols, and to return to the covenant they agreed to keep in Deuteronomy. They warn the Israelites of the terrible punishments God threatened in Deuteronomy. The ultimate punishment, which they announce with sorrow, is the loss of God’s presence and the loss of the Promised Land.